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MASTERS OF THE MOUND—AND THE GAME

Like a lot of other baseball men, the George Sislers—George Sr. is the Hall of Famer, George Jr. the president of the International League—consider pitching the essence of the game. But the Sislers have gone quite a bit farther than most and a Sisler chart of pitching's rise since about 1940 to its present position of overwhelming dominance would climb like a 747 at takeoff. From hours spent analyzing pitchers past and present, they have drawn some provocative conclusions. Their first time in print, for example, in this magazine last April, the Sislers proclaimed Sandy Koufax to be the greatest pitcher of all time. In brief, he came out with a higher efficiency rating than Christy or Dizzy or anyone else who ever pegged a ball 60'6".

A Sisler rating is a number reflecting several ingredients, but the hallowed earned run average is not one of them—among other things the Sislers believe it can be manipulated by managers—while factors such as strikeouts and denying batters walks receive heavy emphasis.

The pitcher everyone was talking about last season—and all spring, too, as his holdout war with Charlie Finley waxed and waned—was Vida Blue of the Oakland A's. Twenty-four victories, eight defeats, adulation, MVP, the Cy Young Award. After a winter's homework, however, the Sislers say neither Blue nor the Cubs' Ferguson Jenkins, the National League Cy Young winner, was as efficient a pitcher in 1971 as Tom Seaver, particular star of the New York Mets and the man firing in the picture to your right. Seaver, Blue, Jenkins and other top starters in both leagues are ranked by the Sislers on page 67.

Curiously, the Houston Astros, who tied for fourth in the National League West in 1971, are the only team in either league to place four pitchers in the top 20. Now that Houston has picked up Dave Roberts, rated 13th, their fans are entitled to dream of a divisional championship for the Astrodome. Although the Astros got more attention in the off-season by acquiring slugger Lee May and Infielder Tommy Helms from Cincinnati, Roberts could be the pivotal man: Houston lost 43 games last year by a single run. Consider this: Pat Dobson of the Padres was No. 15 in the 1970 Sisler ratings and was traded to Baltimore off a 14-15 year, a season similar to Roberts' 14-17 at San Diego. Dobson blossomed into a 20-8 pitcher with the Orioles, and his winning percentage of .714 was the fourth best among regular American League starters.

But only two of Baltimore's four 20-game winners, Dobson and Jim Palmer, appear among the AL's best 20. Dave McNally wound up 22nd and Mike Cuellar 25th.

Scan on and you will notice that the Hell's Angels, also known as California, put three men in the top 20. Their fourth-place finish is not so mysterious, however, when the Angels' hitting deficiencies and discipline problems are taken into account. Three Yankee pitchers also were among the top 20, a performance negated by poor defense and a barren bullpen, which produced only 12 saves all season. The year before virtually the same Yankee relievers had 49. "When I saw the difference between what they did one year and failed to do the next, I thought it was a misprint," says Manager Ralph Houk.

Which brings us to a new Sisler category, relief pitching. Ratings for the best in both leagues follow those of the starting pitchers. As recently as 1960 there was no statistical method of expressing the effectiveness of a bullpen, but then the "save" evolved. The definition of save has varied since The Sporting News unofficially introduced the term. At first, the rules stipulated that a relief pitcher must lace the potential tying or lead run at the plate during his tenure on the mound, and that his team win the game in order for him to be eligible for a save. Now all a reliever must do is maintain somebody else's lead the rest of the game to receive a save. The final score could be 10-1. He cannot be credited with a save if he does not finish the game unless he is removed for a pinch hitter or pinch runner. In the event that two pitchers qualify for a save, the reliever judged most effective by the official scorer receives credit for it. Only one save can be awarded per game and a reliever who gets a win cannot also receive a save.

The introduction of artificial playing surfaces, particularly in the National League, where half the stadiums have them, has caused a drastic reassessment of relief pitchers. Because fake grass "hurries" the ball through the infield, everyone wants strikeout relievers now, rather than the pitcher who can come in and get a batter to hit a ground ball. In the American League only Chicago has artificial turf as the season opens—Kansas City will not see its all-artificial field in the Truman Sports Complex until midsummer—thus strikeouts are not so crucial.

However he gets 'em out, the relief pitcher has emerged as an extraordinarily important individual. Time was when starters also finished games. Now it is seven innings, if that, and show something different. No batter seeing six different pitching speeds from a mixture of right-and lefthanders, and on occasion a specialist prescribed just for him, is going to hit as well as against the same old thing for nine innings, which is just another chapter in the continuing story of why pitchers are paramount, .400 hitters are extinct and it will be a pretty good man in 1972 who can rip out a .270.

Say this for Cleveland, which lacks distinction in virtually every other department: the top American League reliever for 1971 was the Indians' Steve Mingori. And relief pitchers are now far from the underpaid serfs they once were. Ron Perranoski of the Tigers makes an annual salary of $60,000.

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

PHOTO

Waiting for Vida was a diverting spring pastime as the electrifying Oakland lefthander sparred with tough-talking Charlie Finley.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONS